Ritchie Clapson, co-founder of property development and training company, propertyCEO, explains how repurposing buildings for residential use could be the key to unlocking the high street’s potential …

There is no doubt that our high streets are no longer the vibrant retail hubs that they once were. According to the estate agents Savills, approximately 12.5% of retail premises in the UK are vacant. They predict that retail vacancy will rise to 25% by the 2030 unless action is taken.

With a general consensus that our town centres are at a crisis point, something has to be done to prevent further decline and, if possible, to turn high streets once again into places we want to visit. This will require a repurposing of many buildings.

What do we want our high streets to look like in the future? If retail is still to play a role, then in the absence of any need to shop in the high street, we need to create a place that shoppers want to visit. To recapture the thriving activity, town centres must become leisure destinations. They need restaurants, cafes and pubs, boutiques and other specialist retailers, cinemas, theatres, and sports and music venues, as well as craft and gift stores. 

Small independent retailers with a huge range of products can help create a browsers’ paradise – a destination for a day out or for an evening’s dining or entertainment.

Residential redevelopment is the key

While it may sound counter-intuitive, the secret to achieving this revitalisation of commerce is to make town centres more residential. With more people living in town centres, there is automatically more demand – not only for local services, cafes and eateries, but also for local convenience stores and entertainment.

People like living in towns that have a vibrant high street on the doorstep, so this could create a virtuous cycle that leads to the wider regeneration of the high street.

So, how do we achieve this transformation? We need to repurpose the existing buildings in our town centres to create the right balance of homes, workspaces, retail, leisure and services operating side-by-side. But the starting point has to be residential. Because by creating attractive homes in town centres, the demand for these other shops and services follows automatically.

Historically, this residential development has been difficult due to strict planning regulations. To turn a derelict department store into apartments, for example, would require planning permission from the local planning authority (LPA) department, which are usually underfunded, overloaded and often bureaucratic.

Making redevelopment faster and easier

To speed the redevelopment process up, the Government has created Permitted Development Rights (PDRs) which allow the use classes of certain types of building to change without the need for a full planning application. This makes the process much quicker and easier for developers to redevelop buildings, as it reduces – and sometimes removes altogether – the risk of planning being refused. 

In most cases, however, developers must still make an application, but the LPAs have far fewer criteria on which they can object and, in some cases, they have just 56 days in which to raise any objection.

Using the ‘Class G’ PDR, it’s possible to convert the floors above a shop to residential. Furthermore, ‘Class M’ PDR allows developers to convert the ground floor of shops up to 150m2 that are not deemed ‘prime retail’ into residential property.

Also, the Government has proposed that, from 1st August 2021, all buildings in Use Class E can be converted to residential using a brand-new set of Permitted Development Rights. This is the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle which, if approved, will allow us to repurpose most of the buildings in our town centre without the need for planning permission.

A new vision

This new vision of the high street, starting with the increase in residential development bringing increased business opportunities, will deliver many benefits beyond reviving our town centres. By repurposing unused buildings, we’re not only creating new homes, but we’re also recycling our national building stock and reducing the need for development on greenbelt land.

Ritchie Clapson CEng MIStructE is a veteran property developer of almost 40 years and co-founder of propertyCEO, a nationwide property development and training company that helps people create a successful property development business in their spare time.